Knowing the fundamentals of nutrition can help retailers better understand food labels and evaluate a diet’s suitability for the different life stages of small pets.
To provide the best food choices and recommendations to small animal owners, retailers need to have a solid understanding of the basics of nutrition. Knowing the roles different nutrients play in animals’ health is essential to properly evaluating nutrition information and ensuring customers’ pets are getting the appropriate diet for their species and life stage.
There are six basic categories of nutrients that animals need to acquire from food: protein, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Water is also needed to help the body process food and maintain the proper fluid balance.
These are the main building blocks of the body, so young, growing animals usually need a higher amount of protein in their diet than adult animals. Proteins are made up of amino acids, some of which can be manufactured in the body and some of which cannot. Those the body can’t produce are called essential amino acids and must come from the animal’s diet. Protein is also needed to heal injuries and can be used by the body for energy—one gram supplies four calories of energy.
Like proteins, carbohydrates are an energy source, and each gram supplies four calories. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple, such as sugar or honey, and complex, which are found in grains, legumes and tubers. In most cases, complex carbohydrates are better because they tend to include other nutrients, such as fiber, and take more time to digest, helping an animal feel full longer and preventing premature hunger and overeating.
This dense source of energy provides nine calories in one gram, more than twice that of proteins and carbohydrates. Fats also have other important jobs in the body, forming part of the structure of the skin and helping to transport other nutrients, such as vitamins. However, it’s important to limit the amount of fat in the diet of most animals to prevent obesity. Fats are composed of chains of molecules called fatty acids, and like amino acids, some can be made by the body, while essential fatty acids must be obtained through the diet. The two essential fatty acids are linoleic acid and alpha-linoleic acid.
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber, found in fruits and vegetables like apples, oats, rye and legumes, dissolves in water to create a sort of gel. Insoluble fiber, as the name implies, does not dissolve in water because it contains high amounts of cellulose. It can be found in the bran of grains, the pulp of fruit and the skin of vegetables, as well as in hay. Mammals cannot digest cellulose on their own and need special bacteria in their large intestines to do so. Only herbivores, such as rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, carry these special bacteria. In carnivores and omnivores, the main purpose of fiber in the diet is to help food pass through the digestive tract, but in herbivores it is also a main source of energy. It is primarily made up of complex carbohydrates, but tends to be low in calories.
Organic substances present in food, vitamins are required by the body in small amounts to regulate metabolism and maintain normal growth and functioning. The most commonly known vitamins are A, B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folic acid), B12 (cobalamin), C (ascorbic acid), D, E and K. The B and C vitamins are water soluble, so excess amounts can be excreted in the urine. The A, D, E and K vitamins are fat-soluble and are stored in body fat. Because fat-soluble vitamins are not as easily excreted, they can build up in the body over time if an animal is given too much, potentially causing toxicity. Therefore, retailers should ensure customers know that vitamin supplements for small pets that contain vitamin A should be used only in proper amounts.
Minerals have three major roles in the body. They help form structures within the body, such as bones and teeth, and they help regulate fluid balance and the pH of the body. They also form key components of molecules such as hormones, hemoglobin in red blood cells for oxygen transport and enzymes, which regulate metabolism. The minerals in the body are classified by the amounts required. Major (or macro) minerals, including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, sulfur and chloride, are needed in large amounts. Trace minerals, which are needed only in tiny amounts, include iron, zinc, iodine, copper, manganese, fluoride, chromium, selenium, molybdenum and boron.
In commercial pet diets, the amounts of vitamins and minerals are carefully regulated and added to the main ingredients of the diets. Vitamins A, C and E and the minerals zinc, copper, selenium and manganese also act as antioxidants, which can help protect the body against the damaging effects of free radicals. They do this by changing these highly reactive molecules into inactive, less harmful compounds, which may help prevent cancer and degenerative diseases. PB
Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of three books about rat care, health, and training, and was a consultant on the movie Ratatouille.